Hurricane fund could relieve budget woes
By Gerald Peters
Rescuing the state's severely struggling social-service programs with Hurricane Relief Fund money is just plain smart, and does not have to hurt our ability to cope with disaster.
The administration and the Legislature should sit down together to review the hurricane fund rules. They will see that there is far more money in the fund than is needed for the resumption of a hurricane insurance policy-writing activity.
For the eight years it was in operation starting in 1993, the hurricane fund produced an average of $27 million a year in "excess" — what would be called "profits" in the private sector. That plus compounding interest is why the fund contained about $225 million by 2002, and about $185 million today.
Most of the millions locked up in the fund is useless overkill.
Fund rules allow monies to be used for ongoing operations and to pay claims. But there are no longer any policyholders; therefore, other than producing yearly interest for the state's general fund, this pile is lying fallow.
To be fair, both the Legislature and the administration have, until the severe economic and budgetary crisis of 2009, been satisfied to rake off $4 million to $8 million a year to the general fund in earned interest since 2002. And, ironically, for the most part they have ignored the calls of expert senior lawmakers to fund a sustained program of disaster preparedness, to reduce the size of future disaster bailouts.
But now we need more than this relatively small yearly interest transfer. Fortunately, there is enough excess money available in this miscast, misunderstood fund to help our nonprofits, our infrastructure and bond interest obligations, education, as well as a comprehensive and long-overdue disaster-preparedness agenda.
The "don't raid the fund" mantra has picked up a political life of its own, despite being based on a wholly faulty assumption that the fund is sacrosanct and necessary because — after all, a hurricane could and will happen.
Insurance companies of course, got a huge benefit when the state agreed to cover the risk for nearly a decade before they recovered and returned to the market with today's hurricane insurance rates 300 to 800 percent higher than 1993-2000.
But, surprise! The day after the next storm, not a single state building or facility, not a single insurance company in trouble, not a single home or condo owner can be helped without a change to the current statute.
Under the fund's rules, the money can only be used as a backup to a future new group of policyholders' potential claims not for the next storm — which is already covered — but the storm after that. And in that rare event, the fund's rules mandate that the state must buy and charge for insurance to cover the next group of policyholders.
There are no fixed rules or requirement for how much money needs to be in the fund in order to buy international hurricane reinsurance. And while a big pile of money may give everyone comfort, the law does not allow this money to be used be used for direct relief.
In any event, the eventual disposition of the fund should not unfairly reward the insurance industry because the entire population of the state between 1993-2001 contributed the majority of the excess.
What's the best thing to do? Let's get to the bottom of this subjective and shifting 15 years of debate and figure out just what the hurricane relief fund can or can't do and when, and how much, if any, should remain untouched.
Gerald Peters is president of HPS Services Inc. and general manager of HPS Construction Services Ltd. He wrote this commentary for The Advertiser.